Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Nargun and the Stars


Patricia Wrightson The Nargun and the Stars (1970)
Back in the 1970s when I was a kid, Australia was England's closest neighbour - closer than France, closer than even Wales - and so I grew up enjoying the many benefits of Australian culture. I have a vague memory of some huge antipodean anniversarial celebration which would presumably account for that year when you couldn't turn the telly on without seeing either Dame Edna or Norman Gunston, and even the BBC's Jackanory - a fifteen minute daily broadcast of a book read by somebody vaguely famous - joined in with its recital of Patricia Wrightson's The Nargun and the Stars, an Australian children's classic. Weirdly I can find no reference to this hypothetical anniversary year through Google, so perhaps I imagined it and all that Australian culture was actually filtered across from the neighbouring farm, seeing as they had family somewhere down there. Frustratingly, internet memories of The Nargun and the Stars as featured on Jackanory are similarly scant beyond a handful of accounts in which people in their fifties recall it having scared the living shit out of them.

I can still see why, although I'm reading this as an adult. It's a children's book with the usual, logical concessions, placing its young protagonist at the centre of the action and not obliging him to think too hard about anything too utilitarian like how the hell his uncle manages to make a living out on that farm in the middle of the outback; but it's a children's book which nevertheless assumes its reader to be in possession of both a brain and an attention span longer than that of a kitten, so I didn't find it necessary to get in character by dressing up as a schoolboy or eating instant mashed potato drowned in ketchup or anything.

The Nargun and the Stars is experienced through the eyes of the recently orphaned Simon as he is shipped off to live with rural relatives and encounters a surreal panoply of native Australian elementals presumably from Aboriginal lore - tree spirits, the aquatic Potkoorok, and the terrifying Nargun of the title, essentially a living and very much disgruntled boulder. The Nargun has been, so it seems, displaced from its homeland by the march of progress, and now rolls around the hills of Wongadilla, crushing sheep and farm machinery in the dead of night.

Oddly, not very much actually happens in this novel. Events unfold at a leisurely rural pace with breaks for tea every five or so pages, and yet the low incident narrative never drags, being borne along by its wonderful attention to quiet detail - One of very few books that successfully depicts silence, as one Goodreads reviewer puts it. Truthfully, the book doesn't really need to jump through narrative hoops because atmosphere alone does most of the business. This seems to work well as a means of dealing with Simon having recently lost his parents without needing to spell anything out - a canny choice, I would argue, given that spelling things out to children regarding such a ruthlessly subjective experience as losing one's parents is probably asking for trouble, and a road ultimately leading to books with titles like My Dad, the Sex Criminal.

More interesting still is that our Nargun isn't really evil so much as simply misplaced, which in turn serves as a faint echo of the Nargun being only the latest intrusion on the landscape, the previous one having been made by Simon's new family on the realm of the Potkoorok and the rest. This could have resulted in sermonising but instead Wrightson takes a more philosophical tone on the subject of change, impermanence, and so on - all of which is of obvious relevance to Simon's unfortunate situation.

The Nargun and the Stars is a quietly intelligent children's book and as such richly deserves to be remembered as a first division classic alongside the works of Lewis Carroll, Tove Jansson, Roald Dahl and others.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

With Friends Like These...


Alan Dean Foster With Friends Like These... (1977)
My recent reading of Splinter of the Mind's Eye didn't exactly get me foaming at the mouth for more Alan Dean Foster, but as soon as I saw this collection I recalled its cover as having been endlessly reproduced in a thousand books of my childhood as representative of either science-fiction novels or the aliens which tend to populate them. I'm pretty sure the same Michael Whelan painting turned up in the book of Carl Sagan's Cosmos and a few of those history of science-fiction type affairs which were always otherwise full of Amazing Stories cover art. Anyway, intrigued by the realisation of Alan Dean Foster once having written fiction which wasn't tied into some film or television show, I coughed up the readies and here we are.

It seemed logical to assume that Alan Dean Foster's writing must have once been of a higher standard than is found in the aforementioned Star Wars novel, otherwise he would never have been asked to hack out the more generic stuff in the first place; and thankfully my assumption is borne out by at least half of the material here. What is surprising is how good the early Alan Dean Foster genuinely was, and how closely his writing represented a slightly more acerbic version of Clifford Simak. The themes were often pastoral, or spun upon significantly pastoral details - note the rustic folks on the cover sharing chocolate ice-cream cones with their extraterrestrial visitors - although lacking quite the same ecological angle. Oddly, these stories seem, if anything, politically a little rightwards leaning compared to those of Simak, although thankfully not so much so as to present significant appeal to assholes, I wouldn't have thought.

This is undeniably the sort of thing people mean when they talk about the pulps, particularly with the pacing, the inevitable twist endings, and the Gernsback-style futurism, and I say that mostly as a good thing; and it should probably be noted that the writing is poetic and quite lovely, abrim with pleasing images without quite tipping over into self-conscious parody; or at least it is up until about 1974 at which point I gather Foster began turning his hand to tie-in novelisation with greater frequency. That said, it should probably be noted that his taking to churning out adaptations of Star Wars, Dark Star, Star Trek and others didn't seem to mark any noticeable reduction in the copious output of his own original material. Nevertheless for some reason I just found those short stories written after 1974 mostly unengaging, not bad but lacking the sparky invention of Why Johnny Can't Speed or The Emoman or even the somewhat creaky Space Opera, a story which makes even Tharg's Future Shocks seem refined and ingenious. Still, there's nothing terrible here, and some potential clunkers which may conceivably improve with a second reading; and for a book I picked up with no expectation towards any of it being any good, I've been very pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Locksley Exploit


Philip Purser-Hallard The Locksley Exploit (2015)
Philip Purser-Hallard is the best kept secret in British genre writing, runs a claim from the British Fantasy Society on the cover, further qualified by a quote from Andrew Hickey identifying the lad as one of the two or three best science-fiction and fantasy writers in the world today. Regardless of Andrew being a possibly less than impartial source on the grounds that he sort of knows the author, I would say he makes a fair assessment; although it should be kept in mind that my own word probably isn't worth tuppence either, as I sort of know both of them, at least as internet presences and people with whom I have had occasion to work in a creative capacity.

Anyway, yes much as I love yer Charles Stross and yer Neal Stephenson and all those other more financially conspicuous chaps, not a one of them has written anything which I would rate quite so highly as certain works by Philip Purser-Hallard or - seeing as we're here - Simon Bucher-Jones, in the event of anyone being interested; and here's more reason as to why.

The Locksley Exploit is the second part of the Devices trilogy and sequel to The Pendragon Protocol which came out last year. The Devices trilogy seems a fairly simple idea on the surface of it, but the more the narrative progresses, the more it becomes apparent just how much work has gone into this thing - as characterised by the fact of it all unfolding at an entirely natural and seemingly effortless pace - the mark of a true master of his art, namely that he makes it look easy. The story takes place in a very familiar contemporary England policed from way behind the scenes by the Round Table, the Knights of Arthurian legend expressed in the words and deeds of their modern day hosts. Except the whole premise is much closer to a believable, modern and even realist narrative than its constituent parts might suggest. This isn't about possession, reincarnation, or the contemporary puppets of mysterious, ancient forces so much as it is about contemporary western society and the schism by which it appears to be slowly destroying itself. Even the major players in The Locksley Exploit appear to understand exactly what is going on here.

'The myth of the Round Table has shaped so many of the ways we think about being British,' he says. 'The awe we hold our monarch in, as if she'd been appointed by God himself. The way we defer to the royal family, the bishops, the lords, even so-called captains of industry, as if they were the heroic figures Arthur surrounded himself with. The way we as a nation trust to authority, prefer not to stick our necks out, refuse to rock the boat. Even our national anthem isn't about the p-people, but about the person reigning over us. And that makes a kind of sense if your King was once a paragon among men, and might be again one day. But the Circle aren't paragons. Men is all they are.'

The schism is represented by conflicting legends, the Arthurian in contrast with the more egalitarian avatars of Robin Hood and his pals. The Locksley Exploit draws upon a formidable body of mythology in providing support for its peculiarly familiar world, English myth going way back, the kind which once scared the life out of me as a child, seeming to be all scowling wooden faces and rural witch trials. As such the novel reads almost like a textbook in places; which works well, I hasten to add, and makes for a satisfying and stimulating read. What this all adds up to is a reflection of a society pulling itself apart through the conflicting tides of its own disunity, and a disunity wrought largely by abstract ideas, much as the Devices are themselves abstractions.

We - the Circle and the Chapel and the British Beasts; the Gormund Boys and Sons of Gore and Paladins and Frontiersmen; all our equivalents in every culture and all our predecessors back through the millennia, since, perhaps, the dawn of human consciousness - are suffering, he'd say, from a massive and pandemic mental illness. We've convinced first ourselves and one another, then our children and descendants, and now at last our entire civilisation, that the voices we hear in our heads are those of the heroes of old, when in fact they're just that; voices in our heads.

It's interesting that such words should be written by an author of - unless I'm getting my wires crossed here, and apologies if this is so - formerly Christian faith. For some it may read as a variation on Dawkins' somewhat overstated calls for reason, or specifically that which he and his followers define as reason - eschewing all which might be deemed a byproduct of the imagination. Without getting into an entire side issue, the main problem with most versions of the Dawkins argument is the presupposing of there being a single answer for each question, and a single answer working equally well for all people under all possible circumstances: either you agree with me or you're wrong. Whilst this sort of reasoning keeps everything nice and simple, particularly for those seeking some flag under which to march, it isn't very helpful in achieving any sort of understanding of human society as a whole, because that understanding will almost inevitably be a variation on fuck 'em because they're too stupid to live, which is neither helpful nor interesting.

So, to finally swing around in the general direction of the point, it seems significant that a writer with a fairly profound understanding of the mechanism of faith should produce a novel conveying such an astute understanding of where we've been going wrong all this time; and considering where we appear to be heading, we really do need astute understandings, as opposed to people who think pissing off Muslims in the name of free speech represents some sort of blow struck in the name of their beloved reason.

So in answer to a question I didn't actually ask, namely what The Locksley Exploit is about, it's sort of about everything.

Getting back down to earth, or at least to the level of me sat in bed reading this thing for most of the last week, my only criticism would be that I found myself beginning to lose track of certain characters amongst the cast of thousands, who they were, and what had happened to them in The Pendragon Protocol. However, I've a feeling this may just have been me, and it didn't really impinge upon my general enjoyment. The first person present tense narrative of Alan a'Dale, dipping occasionally into archaeological, mythological, or psychogeographical asides, remains lively and engaging for the duration, never really descending into anything you could describe as routine or workmanlike; and it works so well as to carry the reader along regardless of the occasional lost strand, confident of it all making sense and adding up at the end, as indeed it does. The Locksley Exploit seems maybe not so startling as was The Pendragon Protocol, but it maintains the standard, and I'll be sure to re-read both before tackling the final part of the Devices trilogy, because I'm fairly sure that it will be worth the effort on the strength of the first two.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy: Tomorrow's Avengers


Arnold Drake, Steve Gerber, Gene Colan & others
Guardians of the Galaxy: Tomorrow's Avengers (1977)

Neither talking raccoon nor pugilist tree anywhere to be seen, this collection being a reprint of the original version of the Guardians, as previously reprinted in the English Star Wars Weekly back when I was a boy of the age group for which these strips were written and drawn. I liked the film a lot, but for me the Guardians of the Galaxy will always be these guys - Charlie-27, Martinex, Vance Astro, and the others.

Naturally I sought this out during a fit of nostalgia not entirely unlike that which recently inspired me to shell out on collections of old Captain America and Warlock comics. Happily it too seems to have stood the test of time in so much as that whilst the strips are very clearly aimed at boys of about twelve and not much older, at least psychologically, they work well within such limitations and with no obvious pandering involved. In fact, given that this is essentially a really fat kid's comic book, I'm surprised at how many days it has taken me to read the thing. This is because Guardians of the Galaxy was first published when Marvel was at its most wordy, each panel surmounted by loquacious captionage describing the contents of said panel in a voice combining Williams Shatner and Shakespeare or thereabouts; but the writing is of such standard as to resist the quality of parody even thirty or more years later. It's not Tale of Two Cities by a long shot, and one should keep in mind that Marvel's understanding of science-fiction was essentially capes, superpowers, and men frowning and saying behold! against a Kirby inspired backdrop of planets and cosmic forces, but there's nevertheless sufficient scope for plenty of pleasantly weird ideas - not the full on acid trip of Jim Starlin's Warlock, but coming fairly close in places.

Furthermore, Arnold Drake and Gene Colan's Earth Shall Overcome!, as reprinted from a 1969 issue of Marvel Super-Heroes - the first appearance of the Guardians - probably ranks amongst the strangest comics Marvel has ever produced - van Vogt-style evolved supermen inhabiting a harshly lit expressionist world of angles and half-seen horrors. It seems significant that Arnold Drake is probably better remembered as the creator of the similarly freakish Doom Patrol. Despite the promising start, the Guardians, so it would seem, lay more or less fallow for almost another decade barring uninspiring appearances alongside the Thing in Marvel Two-in-One and later The Defenders - all gathered here - before really finding their feet with the material which was eventually reprinted in Star Wars Weekly; and for a kid's comic which still reads like a kid's comic - aside from it being difficult to process issues of The Defenders without being reminded of Daniel Clowes taking the piss out of that sort of thing - it has generally aged very well.

Monday, 6 July 2015

MPH


Mark Millar & Duncan Fegredo MPH (2015)
I just can't stop buying these Mark Millar collections. There's something addictive about his writing, the sharply sarcastic tone, the occasional splash of the bold and crass offered without either apology or irony. Maybe it's simply that he puts a bit of elbow grease into the job, creating stories with some purpose beyond good guys catching bank robbers - subtext and theme without anything so self-conscious as the kind of overly-laboured and increasingly generic layering which you'll probably find in even Scrooge McDuck comics these days, if such things still exist. Of course, as has been noted on one or two occasions, Millar has been known to shoot himself in the foot from time to time with touches of shock effect which miss the tone and end up being simply repulsive, or at least no more meaningful than a meme involving tits posted in the self-consciously wacky section of droningatheism.com/forum. Happily MPH steers well clear of the usual rape threats, or even anything in that general and contentious direction, so maybe the lad is beginning to learn from his mistakes, or just getting old and mellow. In any case, it leaves us with something which ably demonstrates the strength of Millar's storytelling, and specifically without the safety net of the spectacularly stomach-churning pasted over any narrative hole. Graphic novel is an overused term, but for once it applies. MPH really does feel like a novel.

Of course, it's essentially a superhero tale spun around a drug which turns the user into either the Flash or Quicksilver, depending on one's frame of reference, but it doesn't feel like a superhero tale. In fact it's closer to Bonnie and Clyde or maybe Robin Hood, framing its supposedly criminal anti-heroes simply as people who happen to have received the shitty end of the capitalist stick in expressly Marxist terms; and as such these people are generally quite likeable without the need for any heavy-handed moralising or overstated pathos. I've a feeling this may be a first for Mark Millar.

Even better is that he could have just left it there, with the karmic balance left nice and simple by giving the po' folks their mountain of stolen gold and luxury apartments, but instead he follows the idea through to a very satisfactory conclusion. We already know that money is the root of all evil, but the idea nevertheless comes as a welcome surprise in this story, and without anyone having anything chopped off whilst some other guy films it.

I'm generally well-disposed towards Mark Millar regardless of how much he sucks when he gets it wrong, but I have to say, MPH is more or less perfect.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Old Man's War


John Scalzi Old Man's War (2005)
I haven't really been following the situation with the Hugo Awards and those science-fiction writers who have come to view said institution as pretty much a closed shop; at least I haven't really been following beyond some highly informative blog posts by Andrew Hickey, so some of my information may be in error here. Nevertheless my understanding of the situation is that a group of science-fiction authors - mostly but not exclusively politically conservative or even far right, and mostly but not exclusively authors of military science-fiction - are disgruntled at the Hugo Awards failing year after year to recognise their genius because racism is fine if it's against white males apparently, and maybe we should write something about a bunch of space lezzers on a planet of single parent Communist sand monkeys, maybe then they would take notice blah blah blah not fair blah blah blah blummin' right-on feminazis blah blah political correctness gone mad blah blah blah...

Well, something in that general direction. Most vocal amongst this contingent is one Vox Day, the author of award-resistant novels and a blog which seems to use up quite a few megabytes talking about John Scalzi, and about how John Scalzi would be a better writer if he spent more time writing his books and less time slagging off other writers on his blog. John Scalzi is, apparently, one of those humourless self-hating liberal atheist social justice warrior types, and his books aren't very good because he's essentially a Robert Heinlein tribute act and the multimillion dollar deal he signed with Tor Books just shows how he doesn't have much confidence in his own writing - with good reason, obviously - unlike Vox Day who is himself the lucky owner of bollocks so massive and full of manly Caucasian spunk as to facilitate his taking the much braver and more noble road of self-publishing. That's how it works, see.

I could be wrong about some of this of course, although googling the name of Vox Day pulls up a series of interviews and articles in which, amongst other things, our boy suggests that letting women vote isn't necessarily a great idea, and that black people are inherently less civilised than we crackers due to there being fewer generations between them and their primitive jungle bunny ancestors; or specifically, he doesn't actually suggest these things so much as draw our attention to dubiously qualified statistics, then shrug and tell us that science has spoken regardless of whether or not we like what it says. Perhaps unsurprisingly he is also a member of MENSA, which probably speaks for itself.

Anyway, someone at Tor Books opined that Vox Day was not a very nice man, and so Vox Day - or possibly one of his fellow warriors of manly truth - has called for a boycott of Tor Books in support of common sense and not having to apologise to no-one for telling funny jokes about bummers. The boycott in turn has inspired a buy more Tor Books campaign, which I'm happy to support given how many of the things I've read and enjoyed, and that I dislike right-wing arseholes as a general principle; and so it has given me immense and almost borderline sexual pleasure to support Tor Books specifically through purchase of a John Scalzi novel.

Okay, so military science-fiction: I don't really like the idea of it, but it seemed I should at least have a look so as to be able to hate it with authority; although I loved Joe Haldeman's The Forever War if that counts, which it probably should. Military science-fiction is apparently greatly inspired by Heinlein, which doesn't mean a lot to me given that I hated Stranger in a Strange Land more than almost anything else I've ever read and have no intention of reading anything by the big-faced polygamist ever again, regardless of Red Planet and some of those earlier short stories being decent. Anyway...

Old Man's War sends septuagenarians off to battle aliens on distant colony planets, furnishing them with extended lives in newly grown combat-ready bodies and sweetening the deal with the promise of forty acres and a mule or equivalent once their tour of duty is done. It's full of nice, big, head-twisting science-fiction concepts, all carried along by a lovely, retrained prose with the unhurried tone of a conversation between old farts enjoying lemonade on the verandah on a hot summer's day. It's almost an uptempo Bukowski with genetic engineering instead of booze, and maybe a touch of Rogue Trooper from the old 2000AD comics. Old Man's War is probably lousy as military science-fiction given that it has no political axe to grind, and seems to regard warfare as something senseless to which logic cannot be applied, which cannot be understood without direct experience, but it's nevertheless a pretty great book. In fact it's so good as to remind one of the entire point of reading science-fiction in the first place; which makes Vox Day more or less an idiot to my way of thinking, should further clarification be necessary.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Midwich Cuckoos


John Wyndham The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
Our house seemed to be full of John Wyndham novels when I was growing up, so I'm not quite sure why I've only now begun to get around to reading the things. Part of the reason may be a reluctance to buy any edition of a novel other than the one with which I am roughly familiar from childhood, having grown up with the thing even if this didn't actually entail my reading it. The Midwich Cuckoos with any cover other than the classic Harry Willock design, for example, just seems stupid and pointless to me; although given my now living in Texas, I don't suppose it makes much difference seeing as I don't really encounter much second hand Wyndham around our way. Conversely, my recent trip back to the old country included visits to second hand book stores - or shops, I suppose I mean - the shelves of which were positively groaning with Wyndhams; and as I approach fifty it has come to seem increasingly ridiculous that I haven't yet got around to reading some of these.

The story will probably be roughly familiar to most people of a certain vintage as having inspired Village of the Damned, and by association, much of Jon Pertwee's run on the TV show which shall not be named: a rural village experiences a blackout during which time it is entirely isolated from the outside world, something resembling a flying saucer seems to be responsible, and when normal service is resumed it transpires that all the woman of the village are abruptly with child, including the virgins. Sixty-one children are born, all with the same distinctive unearthly appearance - blonde hair and golden eyes - and all telepathically conjoined as a gestalt entity.

For what is a relatively simple story, Wyndham gets a hell of a lot done with this one. On one level it seems to address our shifting view of the world, or at least human civilisation, specifically the view which had recently shifted from a belief in the global conflict of 1914 to 1918 as having been the war to end all wars, to a new understanding of there perhaps being no discrete limit to the horrors which might be visited upon us. Additionally The Midwich Cuckoos explores the notion of the superman or coming race as invoked by both the Nazis and numerous science-fiction writers who probably should have known better, and so here we are rudely presented with the possibility that superman might not want to be our friend, even that the thing which defines him as superman is the very fact of his being our enemy in Darwinian terms. As with the best science-fiction, all of this adds up to an examination of ourselves, and one which must have seemed particularly pertinent during the first decade after the end of the second world war - the question being whether we can afford ethics in opposition to absolute evil, the evil being that which must cause our own extinction in this case.

Oddly, much of this novel reminds me of certain supposedly classic alien abduction cases, and it certainly ticks a lot of the boxes - mysterious energy fields, missing time, extraterrestrial miscegenation and so on; although the earliest archetypal report of its general kind, reputedly occurring to Brazilian farmer Antônio Vilas Boas, wasn't really known until February 1958. This probably isn't significant as the fleeting presence of a saucer in The Midwich Cuckoos suggests that Wyndham at least had one ear sporadically attuned to phenomena of the sort.

The Midwich Cuckoos, for all of its wonderful ideas delivered with the minimum of fuss, nevertheless doesn't score so well as either The Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes. The politely middle-class tone of the narrative may have aggravated Brian Aldiss, but there really wouldn't have been much point trying to tell this story as a variation on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The only real problem is that it sags somewhat in the middle, with one chapter after another related in conversation between our narrator and whoever happened to see something or else has some new idea about the children of the village. Still, one passes through the lull and the end wraps itself up with enough strength of character to leave an impression formed by the novel's more memorable passages, of which there are plenty; so jolly good show and everything.